WELLINGTON - An Emperor penguin that washed up lost on a New Zealand beach this week was taken to Wellington Zoo Friday after its health deteriorated, wildlife experts said.
The penguin, nicknamed "Happy Feet" by locals, was found wandering on a North Island beach on Monday, more than 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) from its Antarctic home.
The giant bird, only the second Emperor penguin ever recorded in New Zealand, initially appeared in good health but Department of Conservation (DOC) spokesman Peter Simpson said it took a turn for the worse early Friday.
He said the penguin, which is used to sub-zero temperatures, was eating sand in an apparent bid to cool down. Emperor penguins in the Antarctic eat snow when they get too hot.
"It was eating sand and small sticks, it was standing up than lying down and attempting to regurgitate the sand," Simpson told AFP.
"We had the vets and an expert from Massey (University) examine it and we've decided to take it to Wellington Zoo to see if we can find out what's wrong with it."
Simpson said if the penguin, believed to be a juvenile male, could be nursed back to health, it may be reintroduced to the sea in the hope it will swim back to Antarctica.
He said the worst case scenario was euthanasia, adding "that's not one we're looking at at the moment".
The penguin attracted hundreds of sightseers to the Kapiti Coast, 40 kilometers north of Wellington, although Simpson said the crowds had been responsible and kept their distance from the bird.
But he said the Emperor was stressed by the relative warmth of the New Zealand climate, where temperatures are currently around 50 Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius).
"The problem with these birds is that temperature control is vital and the stress levels need to be monitored very closely," he said.
Earlier this week, Simpson said flying the penguin back to Antarctica was not feasible as the frozen continent was in the midst of winter and it was dark 24-hours a day.
He also said there were no facilities in New Zealand capable of providing the bird with long-term accommodation.
The Emperor penguin is the largest species of the distinctive waddling creatures and can grow up to 1.15 meters (45 inches) tall.
They live in colonies ranging in size from a few hundred to more than 20,000 pairs, according to the Australian Antarctic Division.
With no nesting material available on the frozen tundra, they huddle together for warmth during the long Antarctic winter, as depicted in the Oscar-winning 2005 documentary March of the Penguins.
The penguin found in New Zealand is named after the 2006 animated feature Happy Feet, about a tap-dancing Emperor chick.
Image (not "Happy Feet"): the.approximate.photographer / via Flickr